One my all time favorite Christmas carols is “O Holy Night.” I look forward to the soloist singing it at church on Christmas eve. I was thinking about it again this year, and discovered the most stunning and disruptive line…
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O, hear the angels' voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
The line that absolutely stops me is this: “And the soul felt it’s worth.”
I don’t know that this happens a great deal at Christmastime actually. You hear a Christmas carol, you see a manger scene in someone’s yard, your attention is turned for a moment to the nativity of Jesus – does it naturally follow in that moment that your soul feels it’s worth? And why not?
I think we celebrate Christmas in a vacuum.
We do our best to turn our attention to Jesus. We meditate on his coming, the circumstances, the gift. But I think we forget what his coming was for.
Christmas is a rescue. God coming to rescue us. It is an act of humility, love and sacrifice unparalleled in the history of the world. But the act does not take place in a vacuum. The act is not primarily to show the greatness of God. It does show his greatness. But the act has a fierce intention to it, the whole drama is fiercely intentional, and the object of this act is you and me; the purpose is our rescue and restoration, to bring us back to God.
Why have we lost sight of that?
I think in part it’s because of a doctrine we’ve embraced – call it the doctrine of “the worthlessness of the rescued shows the surpassing greatness of the rescuer.” It is a very popular doctrine. I think it got in under the belief that in order to promote the glory of God we must give no quarter to any idea that human beings have intrinsic worth. Thus the popular phrase, “I’m just a sinner, saved by grace.” Or, “It’s not about you; it’s about Jesus.”
The doctrine is deeply ingrained in the church, and deeply damaging to our relationship with God. Because it is untrue.
You ask a father to show you pictures of his children. “They are profoundly unworthy,” he says to you. “That is what makes me such a great Father. I love such worthless creatures in order to prove what an awesome Father I am.” What would we think of such a man? What would you think of a person who said to their children, “You are lucky to be here. You ought to thank me because I even care about such a worthless creature as you.” Wouldn’t we call that child abuse? (Even now we bristle at the analogy, because of how deep the doctrine has been ingrained in us. But isn’t it true – wouldn’t you call that kind of parenting abusive?).
Of course we are to worship God. Of course he is worthy to be worshipped. But something has slipped into the Church that is deeply and profoundly damaging, both to our view of God and our relationship with him.
Consider a simple daily kind of rescue. Your car battery is dead; you need a jump. But it’s late at night, and snowing. You call a friend, hating to bother them but in need of help. They jump out of bed and race to your aid. Doesn’t it help you to realize how much you matter to them? Doesn’t it deepen the friendship? And wouldn’t it be death to the relationship if they said to you, “You don’t deserve this. I do this to demonstrate my goodness.” Would you want to call them a second time? Does the relationship even have a future?
Or take the simple words, “I love you.” Doesn’t it do something to your soul to hear those words? You begin to realize how much you matter to the one who spoke them in love. And what would happen if they went on to explain, “It’s nothing in you that makes me love you. It’s my goodness that causes me to love. In fact, your utter unworthiness of my love only proves how good I am for loving you. Keep that in mind.”
“But…but…we sinned. We fell. We didn’t deserve God to come and rescue us.” That is true. But it does not follow that we are worthless, and that it is our utter worthlessness that makes him worthy of praise. The child who turns their back on the family, runs away, winds up in jail doesn’t deserve to be bailed out. But love doesn’t think in terms of deserve or not deserve. Love thinks in terms of precious value – you matter too much for me to leave you there. The lost child matters still to their parents. Matters very much. They may be in a sorry condition, but they have tremendous value and worth. And when they are bailed out the child knows that they matter. They know they are prized.
I think Jesus was speaking directly into this distortion about the heart of God, this doctrine of worthlesness when he told the parable of the prodigal son. The son has a speech about his unworthiness. “Father, I have sinned. I am not worthy to be called your son.” He says it twice. The father pays no attention to the speech at all. He doesn’t even acknowledge it. He says, “Kill the fatted calf! We must celebrate! My son who was dead is alive!”
Something profound takes place in the soul of a person when they know they matter; when they know they are prized. It changes them. All questions of tit-for-tat are swept away; there is no longer any room for fear in the relationship. They know they are loved, and it evokes love in return. Someone who is recued has a deep and profound gratitude to the rescuer. “You would do this for me?” But if their rescuer said, “I did not do this for you; I did this for me. I did it to prove my greatness. In fact, your complete unworthiness to be rescued is part of my plan to show my greatness.” Could you imagine the relationship having any sort of future?
Christmas is the most stunning rescue story of all time. Under cover of night, in a remote village in Palestine, in a world held captive by the dark prince, God comes to earth as a human being, a little boy. He invades the human race in order to rescue the human race. Satan is furious, he lashes out desperately to try and stop the invasion. The angels go to war. But God cannot be stopped. He will ransom and restore his beloved. The beauty of the act cannot be adequately expressed.
And what are we to think of the ones God would go to such lengths to rescue, and at such a price? How precious they must be. They must be worth a great deal to him. Inestimable worth. And that is why the soul felt its worth. At least, that ought to be the effect of Christmas upon us.
When a great King rescues his beloved, we all know she is precious to him. And we see his greatness. We also see her worth. If that great King were to rescue a potato, we would not think him great at all; we would find it bizarre. So away with this doctrine of “the worthlessness of the rescued shows the surpassing greatness of the rescuer.” That is not how Jesus saw it. That is not the language of love at all. This nativity had an object in mind. That object is you and me.
I think this will help us to celebrate Christmas for what it is – as a daring rescue. Not in a vacuum. In the context of love. I think it will allow us to be stunned at the way God goes about things. To fall in love again with his amazing heart. And to allow ourselves to experience some deep shift in our soul, as we come to feel our worth. We must really matter.
We look at the manger. We see the angels, the wise men. We see the little boy. And then we boldy sing, “and the soul felt it’s worth.”